I couldn’t speak about Indian music legitimately without first giving a brief history of its importance to philosophy and religion…
At the end of the 3rd century BCE India was a fragmented kingdom. Having overthrown the rule of the Mauryan Empire the sub-continent had a new lease on their economy and culture. This is known as the classical period of Indian history. During this time India was estimated to have the “largest economy of the ancient and medieval world, with its huge population generating between one fourth and one third of the world’s income up to the 18th century”. In the middle of this “Golden Age of India” was the religious resurgence of Hinduism in the 4th century. This resurgence codified the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, including Samkhya (religious dualism and atheism, essentially agnostic thinking), Yoga (the connection between the body, mind, and spirit), Nyaya (logic), Vaisheshika (the study of a finite universe), Purva-Mimamsa (the study of Dharma, Law or Natural Law) and Vedanta (the study of the Upanishads, or self-realization through literature). All of these philosophies focused on the Vedas – the oldest scriptures of Hinduism and arguably the basis of modern philosophical thought, both Eastern and Western.
In historical Vedic religion there are four different canonical collections of metrical material that are used in the performance of yajna (sacrifice) and are still sung today by orthodox Hindu: the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda, similar to how the Psalms of David are still revered in modern Judaism and Christianity. However, these ancient Vedic texts and song are the basis of Indian Classical music and precursor to the raga.
A raga (literally translated to “color” or “hue”) is a very tough thing to try to nail down with a definition. The argument still rages between academics about what exactly a raga is. As a classically trained pianist, trained in Western musical theory, it would actually be impossible for me to explain. I could try by starting to explain the Carnatic system of notes where there are 16 tones instead of the Western 12. Or I could start more conceptually and explain the seasons of the Raga, and how notes, tones, and melody are closely related to the season.
….or I could throw on some Ravi Shankar and let you hear for yourself.
Ravi Shankar, who passed away on December 11th at the age of 92, a virtuoso of the sitar, was the be all and end all when it came to contemporary Indian classical music. Due only to the richness and expressiveness of his playing, he evolved this art-form even more, and combined the ancient raga with Western classical and popular music.
A former dancer, Ravi Shankar started studying Indian classical music in 1938 at the age of 18 and, by 25, was recording music for HMV India and working as a music director for All India Radio, combining Western and classical Indian instrumentation – something never heard before.
In 1952 Shankar was introduced to Yehudi Menuhin, a western violinist, and was invited in 1955 to perform in New York City as a guest of the Ford Foundation at the Museum of Modern Art. However, the ever wise Shankar declined. Problems with his marriage was a more pressing issue at the time and to leave for America would destroy his relationship with his wife. He sent a contemporary Ali Akbar Khan in his stead. Ironically, the meeting with Yehudi Menuhin, and the invitation Shankar declined, eventually created one of the first melting pots of Western and Eastern classical music:
Khan performed admirably, and was even the first Indian classical musician to perform on American television and record a full raga performance for Angel Records.
Shankar, having learned of the positive response from Khan, now knew that he could take his sitar across the globe, so in 1956 he toured the US, UK, and Germany holding small intimate concerts and educating attendees about the history of Indian music and the Carnatic system. It was during this tour that he became friends with Richard Bock, a record producer, who recorded Shankar during his time in the States. The studio they were using happened to be the same studio being used by the 60’s pop band The Byrds, which led David Crosby, the Byrds front man, to incorporate some of Shankar’s elements in their song Why.
The Byrds themselves we’re a bit of a super-group in the 60’s pop scene at the time and they had a lot of friends in other pop sensations of the era: namely, George Harrison. The story goes that Crosby lent a Shankar record to Harrison in August of ‘65 and Harrison was so blown away that he bought a sitar and started learning by ear. In December of 1965 Rubber Soul hit record stores and teeny-boppers and music critics alike were stunned to hear a sitar on the second cut:
Rubber Soul was at the top of the charts, the Beatles at the top of the world, and George Harrison wanted to learn more. Having finally met Shankar in London in 1966 Harrison travelled to Srinagar, India for a six week crash course in sitar and Indian classical music. This meeting raised the popularity of Shankar to super-star status, and according to Ken Hunt of AllMusic, became “the most famous Indian musician on the planet”, a title he still has yet to concede.
Shankar may have been a product of the times: counter-culture in the US had a renewed interest in Eastern philosophy, the practice of Yoga had started to become a world-wide trend (see: your local YMCA), and interests in Indian classical music in Western song had sprung to an all time high. This argument is sometimes used to discredit Shankar’s work as an innovator – instead of working towards new ways to play the sitar; he merely fell into the right place at the right time.
However it came to pass, Shankar became an ambassador of peace and music across the globe, continuing to write, perform, tour, and educate for audiences far and wide. He has been honored by UNESCO, received the three highest national civil honors of India, three Grammy Awards, received honorary degrees from universities in the United States and India, and even made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his “services to music”. He is the true “godfather of world music”.
On the mantle of world music Ravi Shankar is the centerpiece, and the legacy of his work can still be heard today. Not only by the Westernization of the Indian culture through music and film, but also by his offspring. His daughters Norah Jones and Anoushka Shankar are two very talented musicians in their own right who, although born into completely different circumstances, have used their born talents to combine even more elements of western music. Jones is a chart-topping pianist and singer who combines jazz, pop, and country, while her half sister Anoushka (a world-class sitar player in her own right) continues her father’s work as an ambassador of Indian classical musician and crossover artist.
The landscape of music all around the world has been changed forever by the realization of Indian classical music. And even if Shankar was merely a product of circumstance in the 60’s, it is almost fitting that the music he was promoting was a product of historical and religious circumstance in the 4th century. The fact that he dedicated a lot of his performance to educating the audience shows his commitment to spreading the knowledge of Indian classical music across the globe.
The world has lost a true ambassador not only of India, but to the ancient past. He will be missed.
“History of India.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 Dec 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_India>
“Maurya Empire.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 Dec 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurya_Empire>
“Ravi Shankar.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 Dec 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ravi_Shankar>
“Norah Jones.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 Dec 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norah_Jones>
“Other Influences on the Byrds.” Byrd Watcher: A field Guide to the Byrds of Los Angeles. Tim Connors. 29 June 1997. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://ebni.com/byrds/relinfluences.html>
“Rubber Soul.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubber_Soul>
“Vedanta.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 12 Dec 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedanta>
“Mimamsa.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 23 Nov 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purva-Mimamsa>
“Hinduism.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 11 Dec 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinduism>
“Vedas.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 Nov 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedas>
“Raga.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 Nov 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raga>
“Indian classical music.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 10 Dec 2012. Web. 12 Dec 2012. < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_classical_music>